Almost ten years ago, I was in the room when a young Yemeni democracy activist named Farea al-Muslimi testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He pleaded with the Committee to end the U.S. drone program, explaining that American airstrikes were killing Yemeni civilians and traumatizing entire communities, including his home village, where a drone struck just six days before the hearing. “When they think of America they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time,” he said. “The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.”
Last week, I reminded that same committee of al-Muslimi’s words when I testified at a hearing on America’s lethal strikes program, the civilians it has killed and injured, and the damage it has done to U.S. democracy. Tragically, little has changed in all these years. Al-Muslimi’s assessment that America’s war-based approach to counterterrorism policy is unnecessary, unwise, and counter-productive remains true today. It’s past time for a new approach.
Presidents of both parties unilaterally started launching strikes in Yemen without Congress and the American public even having a conversation about it. Successive presidents claimed the power to use secretive war-based rules to kill terrorism suspects in multiple other countries where we were not, or are not, at war. Despite widespread, credible reports of horrifying civilian deaths and injuries, seemingly without any adequate strategic assessment of costs and consequences, or an attainable end goal, the executive branch kept expanding this program geographically, and in the categories of groups and people who could be killed based on a president’s say-so. The legal justifications are vague and ever-shifting, and virtually no other country agrees with them. Indeed, if any other country launched this program, the United States would rightly call it an unlawful and extrajudicial use of force. Yet it is a core component of what Americans now call our endless wars.
Even in congressionally-authorized wars, like in Afghanistan, this country has failed to live up to its civilian protection obligations. My organization, the ACLU, and our partners represent the survivors of the 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children, killed by the U.S. drone strike in Kabul last August. I’ve heard from my clients, the fathers of those children, the horror of having to gather up their children’s body parts. I’ve listened to one of my clients struggle to breathe through her despair at the death of three of her sons, one of her grandchildren, and her husband, an aid worker for the American humanitarian organization Nutrition and Education International.
My clients’ grief is compounded by the fact that, for 19 days, our government kept up false and stigmatizing allegations about their loved ones, wrongly asserting the strike was “righteous” and “successful” against ISIS operatives. The Pentagon later admitted its mistake, but the damage is done. The falsehoods are still widespread in Afghanistan today and my clients remain in daily and imminent danger. Months ago, the U.S. government promised to evacuate them. They are still waiting.
For most Americans, this kind of fear, horror, and life-long grief are unimaginable. To civilians in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere, it has been their daily life. This is because for more than two decades, presidents of both parties have adopted a costly war-based approach to national security and counterterrorism policy that still has no clear endgame in sight.
Taken as a whole, the shortsighted approach has violated the constitutional separation of powers, damaged the rule of law, set a dangerous precedent for other nations, fueled conflicts, and diverted limited resources from more effective approaches.
In the words of Garrett Reppenhagen, the executive director of Veterans for Peace:
“We are tired of our country using military force as a tool of first resort and the enormous physical and psychological toll this has caused for service members, as well as civilians harmed by our country’s actions abroad. An entire generation of veterans and lost civilian lives later, it’s past time for a new way forward.”
Indeed, we need not remain in this harmful, counterproductive, and costly state. This nation has a robust array of diplomatic, law enforcement, peacebuilding, development, and other resources to mitigate actual security concerns abroad and at home. Congress can and must pull us out of this endless war-based spiral—with its serious human, legal, and policy costs—and chart a new path forward.
First, it’s imperative that Congress use its oversight powers to demand that executive branch officials testify and make public their legal and policy justifications for lethal force where Congress did not authorize it. Secret law is anathema to democratic principles and accountability, as is secret lethal force, and there is no place for them if the United States is to live up to the values it professes. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing was a start in the right direction and Senators from both parties expressed strong concerns, including about the executive branch’s secrecy, lack of responsibility for civilian harm, and the need for Congress to rein in the executive branch’s claims of war-based powers. Congress also needs to question top officials about specific strikes that appear to violate the laws of war and possible war crimes that have occurred in the last 20 years such as this one, and keep demanding systematic overhaul of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, as 50 members of Congress recently did.
Second, Congress should use its Article I power of the purse to deny funding for unauthorized, unlawful use of force. Congress used this power to accelerate the end of the Vietnam War and should take similar action now for unauthorized uses of force. Indeed, twice in the last administration, Congress used the War Power Resolution’s expedited procedures to convey that the president did not have congressional authorization to wage wars. Using the power of appropriations is a logical next step.
Third, Congress must restore our constitutional system of checks and balances and reverse the executive branch’s power grab on matters of war and peace. Under Article I of the Constitution, only Congress has the authority to declare war, except in exceptional circumstances, to repel a sudden attack, or when the nation is in truly imminent peril, and there is no time for the president to seek authorization from Congress. The framers vested the extraordinary decision to use force and go to war in our system’s deliberative body to ensure democratic accountability. Yet over decades, through unilateral executive branch legal opinions and actions, successive presidents have written Congress out of this life and death equation. And Congress has, shamefully, gone along with it.
Fortunately, there is bipartisan legislation in both houses that, if passed, would be a generational recalibration to restore a healthy separations of powers and put the United States on a stronger democratic, legal, and rights-respecting footing as it faces the global challenges of the next 20 years. Among other important provisions, it includes an automatic funding cut-off in the event that, after responding to a genuine emergency, a President fails to come to Congress for continuing authority to use force.
With these steps, the United States can start to craft a new path rooted in the rule of law and democratic accountability. It must be a path that ensures no more families will suffer the kind of anguish and trauma my clients and so many others have faced because of militarized, rights-violating policies.